This text was first published in Valsbergsbladet no 4 in 1996. The English corrected in 2008 by Alex Lind.
Valsberg from a historical perspective
Are we Finns or Swedes or what?
In 1939, a stone axe was found in a gravel-ridge close to todays Valsberg. The axe was boat-shaped and may easily be related to the so-called boat-axe culture, which spread itself over a greater part of Europe more than four thousand years ago during the period known as the younger Stone Age. The find cast some light on the nature and history of human population in this part of what would later become Finland.
The archaeological finds made in Övermark (of which Valsberg is a part) show that these parts were populated - at least up until 500 AD (approx). Whether or not there were people here during the subsequent 800 years has not been established, but it is said that the place-names Valsberg and Valsås are proof that this was the case.
FORMED DURING THE ICE AGE
The geography of the northern part of Europe was to a large extent formed during the Ice Age. The heavy ice masses which once covered the land have also caused the land to rise slowly out of the sea. This rising, which is still going on, is scarcely noticeable over the short term (being just one centimetre a year) but over the course of a century it adds up to one metre.
According to linguists, "vals-", the first half of the names Valsberg and Valsås, is a dialectical form of the old Swedish word, "vard". This would seem to indicate that the two names arose from the habit of setting up beacons on high places as a guide for seafarers. There is much evidence to back this view up and thus the names Valsberg and Valsås are from the period prior to the 4th century AD when the Övermark plain was under water.
The latter halves of these two names, "-berg" meaning mountain, and "-ås meaning ridge, indicate that both areas are higher than their surroundings, and so they are - but not by much. The top of the Valsberg "mountain" is only eighty-nine metres above sea level.
Valsberg is situated in a part of Finland where the landscape is mainly flat. The Valsberg "mountain" with its cliffs and slopes is in sharp contrast to this.
The area began to be populated in or around the 14th century, and from the 16th century onwards written documents start to give more and more information about the inhabitants. However, it wasnt until approximately 1785 that the first settlers came to Valsberg.
A PART OF SWEDEN
One may wonder why most of the settlers spoke Swedish when the area is nowadays a part of Finland. Well, for many centuries the history of Finland WAS the history of Sweden. As early as the 11th century, Swedish kings started to launch crusades to Finland in order to Christianize the savage Finns. In this they succeeded. The Gulf of Bothnia then became a Swedish interior sea. The Swedish kingdom fought several wars against the Grand Duchy of Russia and in 1323 a treaty was signed in which the borders between Sweden and Russia were defined for the first time. Finland thus became a part of Sweden for almost the whole of the subsequent 500 years.
From the very beginning Swedes found their way across the Gulf of Bothnia and settled along the west coast of Finland. There was nothing special about this, given that Finland was then part of the Swedish kingdom.
During the next few centuries Sweden continued to fight wars with Russia. During 1714 -21 the whole of Finland was occupied by Russian troops. Yet another war was fought in 1808-09. Sweden lost that war and Finland then became part of the Russian empire. When the borders were re-drawn, a great number of Finnish-speaking people were left on the Swedish side of the border in the northern part of the country.
PROCLAIMED ITS INDEPENDECY
Although a part of the Russian empire, Finland retained a certain degree of autonomy and even had its own parliament. The revolution in Russia in October 1917 led to Finland proclaiming its independence on December 6 of the same year. This event has since been celebrated every year as Independence Day. Finlands declaration of independence led almost immediately to the outbreak of civil war, fought between the "Reds" and the "Whites". The Reds being pro-communist or anti-bourgeoisie. The Whites were led by the legendary Marshal Mannerheim, later known from his exploits during the Second World War. Many of Finland's workers, crofters etc joined the Red side. Such was not the case in Valsberg; approximately twenty-two men from Valsberg/Valsås (three of whom were later killed) joined different voluntary corps and fought on the winning White side.
During the Second World War, Finland fought two wars against the Soviet Union (the "Winter War" 1939-40 and the "Continuation War" 1941-44) in an effort to retain its independence. Approximately thirty men from Valsberg/Valsås took part in the wars. Four of them died, either in combat or as the result of illness caught during the war.
THE FIRST SETTLER
Around the year 1785, the first settler came to Valsberg. He was joined by three others and by 1795 the population had risen to twenty-five. Neighbouring Valsås had its first settler in 1803; he was a former soldier from the Swedish army who had changed career and become a farmer.
The population in these small proto-villages increased as follows over the subsequent years:
1811 58 people
1865 153 people
1878 179 people
1900 180 people
Today, the joint population of Valsberg/Valsås numbers approximately forty. Emigration to America at the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century put a stop to the population growth. Emigration to Sweden in the 50s and the 60s had the same effect.
Valsberg and Valsås (the names used to be spelled with a "W" up until the 20s) are today actually a "last outpost" on the language border between Finnish-speaking Finland and Swedish-speaking Finland. The next village to the east from Valsberg is completely Finnish-speaking.
FINNS OR SWEDES?
According to its constitution Finland has two official languages: Finnish and Swedish. Everyone in Finland has the constitutional right to receive schooling through the medium of their mother tongue. But, regardless of their mother tongue, they are citizens of one nation: Finland. Swedish-speaking people do not regard themselves as being Swedes in the same way that people in Sweden view themselves but from a linguistic point of view they (or, I should say, we) are Swedes (Finland-Swedes).
This fact may have caused some problems for emigrants from this area to America. They emigrated from Finland but their language was Swedish. Were they Finns or Swedes? Well, to them a Finn was a person who spoke Finnish, and they didnt. So in order to emphasise this point they called themselves Swedes. Today we regard ourselves as Finns by citizenship and as Swedes by language. The way we speak Swedish differs from the Swedish spoken in Sweden. The number of Swedish-speakers in todays Finland is approximately six percent or 300,000 people.
INFLUENCED BY EMIGRATION
Valsberg and Valsås were heavily affected by the emigration to America. Between 1885 and 1925 some seventy people (well over twenty-five percent of the population) emigrated to America. A quick look at those emigrants shows that almost half of them went to America between the years 1900 and 1909. They ranged in age between one year-old to fourty-two years old with the average age being twenty-two.
On arriving in America they adopted new names. Since the use of a last name wasn't so common here at that time they chose to use their fathers name as their surname. This had been the general way of identifying people back in the old country. Thus they became Carlson, Erickson, Mattson or Gustafson etc. Some of them used the village name as their surname and therefore we can find quite a number of people in America called Walsberg. According to an Internet search there are over 50 people in the USA listed in the phone book who have the surname Walsberg
On emigrating to America, emigrants from these parts of Finland mainly settled in the same areas. The most significant of these was Branford, Connecticut, which at one time used to be called "Little Övermark" due to the fact that a great number of its inhabitants came from Övermark. A list of all the places where the emigrants settled would be a long one but mention should be made of several of them: Worcester and Gardner in Massachusetts; Escanaba, Gladstone and Dollar Bay in Michigan; DeKalb and Waukegan in Illinois; Duluth, Eveleth and Hibbing in Minnesota; Astoria and Coos Bay in Oregon; Bakersfield and Eureka in California; Tacoma and Seattle in Washington and, of course, New York - both the city and the state.
When a census of the U.S. population was carried out in 1910 there were 1,4 million people in the U.S. who had been born in the Nordic countries (that is to say, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark). Of these almost 130,000 were from Finland and they were represented in all the states. The Swedes dominated in most states, but Sweden and the other countries were outnumbered by Finland in the state of Michigan, where the Finns were the largest group, with over 31,000 people.
The emigrants worked in the woods, in the mines, in the factories or as carpenters and maids. Some of them became contractors. Most of the emigrants from Valsberg went to America never to return or see their parents or other relatives in Finland ever again. Quite a number of them, however, went to America, worked a number of years, made some money, bought farming land, or bought out their siblings and took over the family farm.
Today the emigrants' children and their children's children are spread all over the United States, from Alaska to Florida, and have fully adapted to American society. The links to the old country are gradually getting weaker and weaker and in the coming generations they will probably be forgotten.
STARTED A VILLAGE SCHOOL
Back to the history of Valsberg. From at least the 1860's there was some form of organized teaching for children in so-called school cabins, usually by a self-taught individual. In the late 1880s the towns began to start elementary schools. In Övermark the first elementary school was started in 1885. Övermark became an independent township in 1891 and in 1894 a new school house was built. The distance from Valsberg/Valsås was long (six-eight miles) and therefore people here asked the ruling assembly to establish a school in Valsberg. The assembly refused. In September 1906, a public meeting was held and a decision was taken to establish a school in Valsberg. It was opened in October and had twenty-eight pupils. The village organized lotteries and raised funds in order to be able to rent a house both for use as a school and as a residence for the school teacher.
In 1908 the town assembly decided to take over responsibility for the running of the school in Valsberg. In addition, a new school house was planned and built. In 1911 it started to serve as the Valsberg seat of learning. The school was in use until 1964 when the lack of children made it impossible to continue running it. That year the school had only five students. Since that time children from Valsberg have attended elementary school in Övermark and travel to and from school by local taxi which serves as a "school bus". In all, the Valsberg Elementary School had 239 students. The school house was later offered to the village association, which now uses it for various purposes.
During the 30s Valsberg also had a private-run elementary school for Finnish-speakers. As Valsberg is situated very close to Finnish-speaking areas, the village had a number of Finns living there. The school closed after just nine years
ELECTRICITY CAME LATE TO VALSBERG
In 1920 the telephone came to Valsberg. That year the Valsberg-Valsås Telephone Company was founded. In the beginning there were only two lines and two telephones - one in Valsberg and one in Valsås! By the end of the 20s a new telephone exchange was bought. It was placed in the house owned by Josef Österberg and took care of telephone traffic for 15 years. After that it was moved to the house of Elsa and Hjalmar Wahlsberg where the exchange was run by Elsa up until 1973, when the telephone system was automated.
Electricity came to Övermark in the late 20s but for the people of Valsberg the Second World War put pay to any proposed enlargement of the service to this remote place and it was not until 1946 that electricity was introduced here!
In 1938 the Övermark Co-op opened a grocery store at Valsberg. The store was located in the house owned by the Österbergs and their daughter Ellen (who later married into the Lassfolk family) was its manager from the beginning up until it closed in 1977. The villagers could buy their daily essentials there - everything from coffee to horse shoes.
In 1976 a village association was formed. Its main purpose is to keep the old school-house in good condition, and by so doing the association offers a meeting place for the villagers. During the summer, the association arranges various kinds of activities, which are especially appreciated by the descendants of emigrants, both from Sweden and the USA, while here on vacation in the "Old Country".
So, there you have it, the Valsberg History in a nutshell from the Ice Age to the present-day!